Forced Displacement and Behavioral Change: An Empirical Study of Returnee Households in the Nuba Mountains

Asha Abdel-Rahim, Dany Jaimovich, Aleksi Ylönen

Defence and Peace Economics, Volume 29, Issue 2 (2018)


This paper compares the social and economic conditions of returnee households with the non-displaced population in eight villages of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, by exploiting household data collected during a short-lived interwar period in 2008. In the South Kordofan region, 25 percent of the population consisted of returnee households in 2008 (mostly IDPs), with around 280,000 returnees in the Nuba Mountains. The authors find that:

  • Returnees have fewer assets than those who stayed during the conflict, in terms of both land size and livestock ownership.
  • The composition of agricultural production differs between the groups, with ‘stayers’ more involved in the cultivation of cash crops (requiring investment and better soil quality) and returnees relying on staples. The authors suggest that returnees appear to be in a less favorable position, and potentially falling into a poverty trap of permanently cultivating staples. This could justify targeted assistance to returnees to improve the conditions for the production of cash crops, or other viable alternatives.
  • Returnees are more likely to have extended family in the village and have clearer property rights over their land than the stayers. The authors suggest that the expectation of recognition as a member of the community of origin and support for the claim of assets held before the conflict are important pull factors for return.
  • Even though returnees seem to face worse economic conditions, they tend to perform better than the rest of the villagers in a series of health indicators, experiencing lower prevalence of a number of serious diseases common to the area as well as lower mortality rates. Using a detailed set of variables about hygiene and sanitary habits, the authors explore the hypothesis that better health outcomes for returnees may be related to changes in attitudes given the distinct experiences during displacement. Their results suggest that returnee households are more likely to adopt these measures, e.g. more likely to wash their hands, use mosquito nets, and engage in family planning, and they are also more likely to be members of community based organizations.
  • Many of the differences between returnees and stayers are gender-related, as the female-headed returnee households are those that are more likely to only produce staple crops and less likely to generate agricultural wage income and own livestock.

Due to a lack of pre-conflict data or a geographically widespread sample these results can only be considered descriptive.